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Group Violence as it Relates to Lynching and Police Violence

[Photo credit: Getty Images]

By V. Alexis


Collective or group violence is a type of violence enacted by people who identify as members of a group (Hawdon). In all the literature on group violence, there is little written on lynching. This piece will cover the basic features of group violence, or more specifically how people who are considered “ordinary” are capable of committing atrocities. The atrocities discussed in this piece are police violence and lynching. This piece will also propose that police violence is a form of group violence and functions similar to lynch mobs.

There are three main features of group violence as it relates to lynching and police violence. These features include strongly identifying with said group, dehumanizing outside groups, and fear mongering. Group membership boosts self-esteem and provides a sense of self and pride. These groups create members and non-members. People tend to define themselves in contrast of other groups. This creates and “us” versus “them” mentality towards other people outside of the group. Discriminating against people outside of the group is often a way to elevate one’s position within the group. As the difference between “us” and “them” grows, there is more of a chance for violence against the outside group(s).


When people who are not experienced with violence do engage in violent behavior, they typically experience physiological and psychological distress. The proposed reason for why this occurs is that the person who committed an act of violence experiences outcome aversion. This outcome aversion is distress from considering the negative outcomes associated with harming others. These negative outcomes can come from knowing that the victim is likely experiencing distress or from expecting punitive consequences.


One way groups will decrease the aversive effects of committing acts of violence is through creating more social distance between them and the outside group. A common way to increase this social distance is through dehumanization. Strong social ties in the group make it easier for dehumanization to occur. Having strong social ties within groups decrease the need for making connections with people in outside groups.

One example of dehumanization is the history of claiming that black people have more proximity to animals than any other race of humans. Early scientists used to examine every part of the black body, but specifically facial angles to prove their theory that black people are less human. These practices and ideas have evolved but have never gone away (Hund). In modern times, there are studies which show that even many medical professionals have the preconceived notion that black people feel less pain (Hoffman). Just last year, there were a few female Track and Field athletes who were subjected to constant scrutiny of their bodies in an effort to figure out why they were so successful in their respective events. Some officials and scientists employed to conduct studies even went as far as insisting these women either take medicine to decrease their testosterone levels or compete with men.

The strategy of fear mongering entails claiming the outside group poses a threat. This threat can be economic, social, or a threat to survival. After the civil war, black veterans were targeted for lynching because white people thought black participation in the war meant that black people were getting “too much power” within the broader society. When lynching was prominent, there was a trend that as prices of cotton went up, the number of lynchings went down (Dutton). One could presume that this trend meant that when black and white people were closer to being financially equal, white people felt threatened economically. Or that black people were only worthy of living when being productive for white owners. Current studies show that black children are viewed as older and black names evoke threatening images in white minds. Black people are viewed as inherently dangerous.


Lynch mobs included three main groups of people; instigators, participants, and spectators. Instigators are the group leaders. They are the people who motivate others to lynch people. Participants are the people who participate in the brutalizing of the victim. The spectators are people who would come to watch and pass around limbs like it was some festival. Even children were spectators and celebrated these brutal deaths. The in-group in the case of lynch mobs are “white conservatives.” I specify conservative because white people with progressive ideas were also lynched. They were not, however, as nearly as vulnerable to lynching as black people.


One could argue that the violence of the U.S police force should be considered as group violence instead of individual isolated incidents or “bad apples.” Following the same framework as previously laid out, the U.S police force has a collective identity characterized as an in-group. This in-group would be considered “the good guys.” The outside group or out-group would perhaps be considered “the bad guys.” The bad guys are disproportionately black, brown, and indigenous people.

The use of dehumanization is arguably the same as during chattel slavery and the time of frequent lynching (Goff). The description of Michael Brown, who was murdered by the police in Ferguson, is one additional example of modern-day dehumanization of black people. The cop Darren Wilson’s account of the murder described Michael Brown as “superhuman.” He was quoted saying, “The only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Wilson also said, Brown looked like a “demon.” The idea that black people are simultaneously in bad health and superhuman has been around since at least the Jim-Crow era.

This idea that black people are superhuman also falls under the category of fear mongering – having ideas that black and indigenous people are inherently dangerous and thus must be controlled or dominated. The three groups in lynch mobs can all be applied to police violence: The instigators are the cops who start the aggression; the participants are those who are physically involved in the brutality and or murder; and the spectators are the so called “good cops” who do nothing to stop the “bad cops.”

Thinking of police violence as collective or group violence is important because all too often it is blamed on one “maniac” or “psychotic” individual. This type of language takes away from the fact that these cops are simply racist and/or are working in a racist system, performing in-group duties within a racist group (institution) with violent tendencies. It’s worth noting that this type of language is also ableist, as it further stigmatizes people with mental illnesses. Not everyone who is psychotic or who has any mental illness is violent and not every violent person is mentally ill or has psychotic traits. The only way to stop these acts of group violence, both lynching and police violence, is to abolish the in-groups.


Dutton, Donald G. The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence: Why “Normal” People Come to Commit Atrocities. Praeger Security International, 2007.

Goff, Phillip Atiba, et al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2014,

Hawdon, James. “Group Violence Revisited: Common Themes across Types of Group Violence.”,

Hoffman, Kelly M, et al. “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 19 Apr. 2016,

Hund, Wulf D., et al. Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class, and Race. Lit Verlag, 2016.


‘You Promised You Wouldn’t Kill Me’

Atatiana Jefferson, Natasha McKenna and the other black women we forget.


A mourner paying respects before the start of the funeral service for Atatiana Jefferson.
Credit…Stewart F. House/Getty Images

DALLAS — On Thursday, I went to the funeral of Atatiana Jefferson, 28, who was shot to death by a police officer from outside her bedroom window this month. My companion there was Rhanda Dormeus, whose daughter Korryn Gaines was also killed by the police in her home. As we watched people file by the coffin, we thought, “This can’t keep happening.”

Ms. Jefferson was killed after a neighbor noticed her doors were open in the early hours of the morning and called a nonemergency police line for help. The two officers who responded did not announce themselves as the police as they sneaked around the yard and peeked into the house.

The death of Ms. Jefferson has mobilized activists, community members and commentators to demand sweeping changes. But if history is any guide, the masses will not recognize her name, as they do Eric Garner, Michael Brown or Tamir Rice. It’s not that we lack stories of black women killed by the police; rather, it seems that we don’t know what to do with them.

Consider Natasha McKenna, who died in early 2015 days after six sheriff’s deputies in Fairfax County, Va., shackled her outside her jail cell, wrestled her to the ground and then shocked her with a stun gun over and over. “You promised you wouldn’t kill me,” she pleaded. Those words should have become a rallying cry. Instead, most people have never heard them.


The families of these women often suffer in relative obscurity. Their daughters’ deaths don’t elicit the marches or news coverage that could catalyze accountability. When most people think about anti-black violence, like lynchings or police killings, they think about men. Women rarely come to mind first. That’s why I created the #SayHerName hashtag to counter this tendency.

It’s true that more men of all races are killed by the police than are women. But black women make up less than 10 percent of the population and 33 percent of all women killed by the police. Data released by the Fatal Interactions with Police research project indicates that from May 2013 to January 2015, more than 57 percent of black women were unarmed when killed. And they are “the only race-gender group to have a majority of its members killed while unarmed.”

They are killed in many of the same circumstances as men, but critically, their being female does not inoculate them from the rapid escalation — often fueled by race-based fear — that often happens. Police officers with eager trigger fingers don’t care if a woman’s child is next to her, or India Kager and Korryn Gaines might still be with us, or if a child might die during a police raid, as Aiyana Stanley-Jones’s tragic death illustrates. Being elderly, homeless or mentally incapacitated does not seem to give police officers pause, as the losses of Kathryn JohnstonMargaret LaVerne Mitchell and Pearlie Golden reveal. Neither does being in one’s own home, or Michelle Cusseaux and Kayla Moore’s lives might have been spared.

The silence around black women is not simply a matter of indifference. It happens even in spaces created for them. When I and a group of bereaved mothers who lost daughters went to the 2017 Women’s March, only mothers of men killed by the police were invited on stage. I still remember the devastated looks on their faces when they realized their losses would remain obscured.

If we want to get a broader sense of the problem here, we have to be able to critique both race and gender conventions and stereotypes, and usually class, too. We must consider implicit and explicit biases against black women. Their interactions with the police may be different from those of white women and, in some ways, black men as well.


All black people would be safer with police reforms that reduce their interactions with law enforcement in public and at home. Black women are more likely than black men to engage with police officers when they knock on doors making welfare or mental health checks. These seemingly benign nonemergency calls can put them at risk.

In 2017, Texas enacted the Sandra Bland Act, named for a woman who died. A key provision is mandatory de-escalation training for police officers. But it’s unclear whether the officer who killed Atatiana Jefferson underwent such training; his behavior on the night of her death suggests that neither he nor his partner followed police protocol.

So simply altering police training won’t protect black women. We must create penalties and disincentives around the use of excessive force. It’s a damning indictment of a broken system that the Sandra Bland Act, which ostensibly sought to prevent future deaths, didn’t seem to have any impact in Ms. Jefferson’s case.

Ms. Jefferson’s mother was too sick to attend her daughter’s funeral. In a letter that was read aloud, she wrote, “You often said you were going to change the world.” If her senseless killing catalyzes reforms that ensure policing is about protection and service, rather than fear and punishment, then she will have changed the world