In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, Officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm. According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.
McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozen eggs and some other fruit. McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.
In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a Black person.
As hundreds march the streets in Minneapolis, New York, D.C., across the U.S. and countries across the globe to protest the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, history shows that police shootings of Black men date back decades, centuries, in the U.S. This is nothing new, and the protests joined by Black and white alike, are not new either.
The account of Mr. McKnight’s murder, detailed above by the Washington Area Spark and the Afro newspaper, took place in 1938. McKnight’s murder was one among dozens. In October 1936, the Afro published a list of Black people killed by white police officers under a headline: “Cops Kill Five Every Year in D.C, All Freed.” Thousands marched through the streets of D.C. to protest these wanton murders.
Not only is this problem of untrained law enforcement officers, but it is a deep-seated system of discrimination and racism that gives carte blanche to police to commit these atrocities without repercussions. Black people know that this goes beyond the police and that racism impacts every single aspect of Black life from cradle to grave.
Today’s marches will be documented in the history books and by news media calling them peaceful and violent, as well as unifying and divisive. When generations from now look back on today, we join those who hope they will see a positive outcome that resulted in change, and not see history repeating itself all over again.