After over a century of failed attempts to pass similar legislation, this week President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. The bill was introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott and Representative Bobby Rush. At 75, Representative Rush is only five years younger than Emmett Till, the namesake of the Act, would be today had he not been murdered in the middle of the night by a white mob.
The Act amends 18 U.S.C. § 249, the Hate Crime Acts, to include the following definition of lynching: whoever conspires to commit any offense under paragraph (1), (2), or (3) shall, if death or serious bodily injury (as defined in section 2246 of this title) results from the offense, be imprisoned for not more than 30 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both.
Effectively, the Act recognizes that enhanced punishment is appropriate for public killings motivated by “race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.” Though it is incredibly important that the the Act finally recognizes that a lynching is a hate crime and the Act is still prevelent today due to continued racially motivated killings, the entirety of 18 U.S.C. § 249 struggles to address the systemic racially motivated violence deeply embedded in United States police authorities.
In 1955, at 14 years old, Emmett Till traveled from Chicago, Illinois, to Money, Mississippi, to visit his extended family. During his visit, Till went to a grocery store with his cousins and their friends. He allegedly whistled or attempted to flirt with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Four days later, her husband, Rob Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his family’s home in the middle of the night. Three days after Till’s kidnapping, his mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
Rob Bryant and J.W. Milam were charged with the murder of Till. In closing argument, defense attorney Sidney Carloton told the jury, composed entirely of white men, that their “ancestors will turn over in their grave” if “every last Anglo-Saxon” member of the jury did not have “the courage to free these men.” The jury acquitted Bryant and Milam. In January 1956, Bryant and Milam published murder confessions in Look magazine. The confessions detailed brutal descriptions of Till’s death. Carolyn Bryant later admitted to hyperbolizing her interactions with Till. The U.S. Department of Justice ended its latest investigation into Till’s murder in December of 2021. To date, no one has been found guilty of any crime associated with Till’s death.
The tragedy of Emmett Till is well recognized as a catalyst to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 2022, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act finally codifies a recognition of the extreme terror and generational harm caused by racially motivated public killings.
Unfortunately, lynchings are not a crime of the past. Though the Act can now address a lynching as a hate crime, racially motivated violence committed by police officers will likely continue unchecked.
The modern murders of Black people committed by police officers line up closely with the lynchings committed throughout the late 1800s into the mid 1900s—both public spectacles, both used to intimidate and harass Black communities, both often without any resulting criminal charges. Lynchings terrorized Black communities. At any time for any reason, a lynch mob could get away with murdering a Black person. Today, at any time for any reason, a police officer can get away with murdering a Black person. The systemic racism rooted in policing is not a newfound concept and is closely intertwined with what we now define as hate crimes.
But even if charged criminally for murder, it is highly unlikely for a police officer to be charged and convicted of a federal hate crime.
Overall, hate crimes are difficult to prosecute. And police officers are even harder to hold accountable. Be it reluctance on the part of the prosecutor or simply a lack of clear evidence, what arguably could be a hate crime often appears before a court as a standard criminal offense.
It is difficult to hold officers accountable for harm done to individuals. Due to the narrowness of what courts are willing to acknowledge as “excessive force,” there is often no remedy for this sort of police action. Statistically, excessive force in policing is committed at disproportionate rates based on race, with Black people being the most likely to suffer at the hands of police. Too many cases of police murdering unarmed Black persons go without criminal action or civil redress.
Coupled together—a general difficulty to prosecute hate crimes with a general lack of holding police accountable—what should be a clear cut hate crime is not considered so clear cut when committed by a police officer.
In 2021, police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter after murdering George Floyd, a Black man, in broad daylight surrounded by witnesses for allegedly using a counterfeit $20. Chauvin also pled guilty in federal court to depriving Floyd of his constitutional rights. Despite the longstanding connection between racist police tactics and the public deaths of Black people, along with the obviously unnecessary methods of restraint used by Chauvin to kill Floyd, the Minnesota attorney general found “no evidence” to charge Chauvin with a hate crime in conjunction with the murder. Had Chauvin not been a police officer, there is a much greater chance “evidence” for a hate crime would appear, as seen in the convictions of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers.
In 1922, over 3,000 Black people marched the streets of Washington, D.C. to protest lynchings and the terror these abhorrent displays of violence forced onto Black communities. In 2020, protestors took to the streets in Washington, D.C. to again protest the public murders of Black people—this time specifically murders committed by police. It took the United States government a century from the 1922 protest to codify its acknowledgment of the racial motivations behind public lynchings. Hopefully, it does not take another century to address the public murders and terrorizations of Black communities by police.