On January 29, 1943, Robert Hall was seized from his home in Baker County, Georgia. Three white police officers, charging Hall with the theft of a tire, drove him to the county courthouse. When they arrived, officers pulled him from the squad car and pummeled him with their fists and a two-pound baton for nearly 30 minutes. Hall fell unconscious. The officers dragged him feetfirst through the street to a cell inside the jailhouse where he would lay dying.
Four years later, when a panel established by President Harry Truman submitted a 178-page report on America’s civil-rights failings, the document included Hall’s story in a lengthy section on police brutality. “There is evidence of lawless police action against whites and Negroes alike, but the dominant pattern is that of race prejudice,” the committee wrote. “Negroes have been shot, supposedly in self-defense, under circumstances indicating, at best, unsatisfactory police work in the handling of criminals, and, at worst, a callous willingness to kill.” The report changed nothing.
The current demonstrations against police brutality will end. They always do. When the crowds go home, politicians will resume their defensive crouch. They will call for reform—never again!—and form commissions. Some of these commissions may even be “blue ribbon.” These commissions will issue reports and the politicians will claim to have done something. But another commission won’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
When Lyndon B. Johnson walked into the White House on July 27, 1967, two decades after Truman’s commission released its report, the nation was on fire. It had been 15 days since police in Newark, New Jersey, yanked John Smith, a black taxi driver, from his cab after he steered around a double-parked police car. Two officers beat Smith before taking him to the Fourth Precinct station, where a crowd gathered to protest his arrest. Newark was the site of one of 159 so-called race riots around the country that summer. Johnson told staff that he wanted to deliver a national address to announce the creation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—which would come to be known as the Kerner Commission. At that point, a commission had not been seriously discussed in the White House, but eight hours later, the panel contained a slew of esteemed public officials and businessmen—some of whom had no idea they were members of the group. Led by Otto Kerner Jr., the governor of Illinois, the commission was charged with examining what led to the uprisings, explaining why they happened, and recommending ways to prevent them in the future.
By February 1968, the commission released its final report on the “powerful ingredients” that had led to the unrest of the previous summer. “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II,” the commission stated. Despite progressive legislative victories such as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, America’s schools and public spaces remained segregated. The police had “come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression,” the document continued. As a salve, the commission recommended creating thousands upon thousands of public-service jobs, investing billions in programs to alleviate housing segregation, and reforming the police. The recommendations were largely ignored.
The commission became a time stamp, Steven Gillon, whose book Separate and Unequal examines the panel, told me. “Part of the problem with the Kerner Commission was the hubris and the belief that this one report was going to change the nature of race relations in America.”
On March 3, 1991, white police officers fractured Rodney King’s skull in the middle of the highway in Los Angeles. Video of the incident surfaced four days later. In April, then-mayor Tom Bradley created the Christopher Commission to examine the practices of the Los Angeles Police Department. Among its findings, the commission discovered that officers who had exchanged racist messages on department email servers “apparently had little concern that they would be disciplined.” On April 29, 1992, all four officers were acquitted of assault. Citizens of Los Angeles rioted for the next six days.
Over the past 10 years, the proliferation of mobile video and social media has exposed the pervasiveness of police brutality. Millions of Americans can instantly watch footage of police throwing a young black girl around outside of a pool party before jamming a knee into her back. They can hear Eric Garner’s and George Floyd’s final words—“I can’t breathe!”—through their own devices. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but it is also a great accelerant, Catherine Lhamon, the chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, told me.
On November 15, 2018, Lhamon’s commission released a report on how police use force in common situations. Among the most crucial reforms it called for was to “shift their frame from warrior to guardian,” Lhamon said. When I asked her what cities had started to effectively implement that framework, she pointed to the one that launched hundreds of active protests across America: Minneapolis. “Change is slow and hard to sustain, and that is a painful lesson of history,” Lhamon said. On Tuesday, the Minneapolis Board of Education unanimously voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. “I value people and education and life,” Kim Ellison, the school-board chairwoman, told the Star Tribune. “Now I’m convinced, based on the actions of the Minneapolis Police Department, that we don’t have the same values.” Officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has been charged with second-degree murder.
“Reports are a key component of driving change, but they can’t be the only one,” Lhamon told me. Politicians have to actually act on the recommendations—the ones that have been laid out decade after decade—and they have to do it now. Even still, police are rarely convicted for crimes related to brutality or shootings while on duty. “People are living inequality now, and they need collective redress for that inequality now.”
The Kerner Commission ended its final report with a note of exasperation. Kenneth Clark, whose research had informed the Brown decision, provided the commission’s coda. “I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot,” he had testified to the committee.
“I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
On Tuesday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio called for a national commission on race to have “a robust and inclusive national dialogue on racial inequities.” He hoped it could be packed with individuals such as former Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama who “have spoken eloquently about racism as a stain on our national character.” The next commission will issue informed and well-meaning recommendations. But they won’t be surprising. Because we’ve heard them all before.
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